Matthew Hoffman, Latin America Correspondent

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Colombian court blocks attempt to impose abortion on Catholic hospitals

Matthew Hoffman, Latin America Correspondent

March 21, 2013 ( - The Council of State, Colombia's highest administrative court, has struck down a regulatory decree that would have mandated that the nation's public and private hospitals perform abortion, according to reports in the local media.

The Council ruled that the decree – which seeks to implement a ruling by the nation's Constitutional Court requiring hospitals to perform abortions in cases of rape, fetal deformity, and danger to the life of the mother – is illegal and therefore null and void.

The decree, numbered 444, was issued by the Ministry of Social Protection under President Alvaro Uribe in 2006.

It was used to impose the killing of the unborn on individual doctors and even private Catholic hospitals, which refused to comply. One Catholic hospital was fined more than $5,000 (U.S.) for refusing to perform an abortion on a child who suffered from a non-lethal form of hydrocephalus in 2008.

The decree cites the United Nations to justify the imposition, noting that the General Assembly stated in 1999 that "in circumstances where abortion is not against the law, health systems should train and equip health-service providers and should take other measures to ensure that such abortion is safe and accessible.”

The Council of State suspended the decree in 2009 in order to analyze its constitutionality. Two days ago, it declared that such decrees can only provide implementing guidelines for laws passed by the nation's legislature, not for decisions of the Constitutional Court.

Only the National Congress can issue regulations to implement the Supreme Tribunal's decisions, the Council stated.

It added that "this decision does not mean that the Government or the National Council of Social Security cannot later take measures, regulate, or define health policies related to said topics," as long as they follow proper procedures.

Since the suspension of Decree 4444 in 2009, the Constitutional Court's pro-abortion ruling has remained without any legislation or regulatory framework to implement it, reducing pressure on doctors who object in conscience to killing unborn children.

The latest ruling is the most recent development in an ongoing battle in Colombia over the Constitutional Court's 2006 decision. Since then, five million signatures have been collected in petition drives asking for a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion. The National Congress remains divided on the issue. 

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